Consider for a second that you are a painter.
You’ve been commissioned to capture the meaning of an English village cricket match. Have you thought about it? What exactly would your canvas show?
I assume the sun would be shining bright; there wouldn’t be a cloud in the blue sky. Trees would be cropping up at all corners of the ground, with chairs dotted at various places. There might be a building in the background, possibly giving a clue as to where this match is taking place. There is almost certainly a clubhouse, with some figures in white padded up, and others just drinking. A handful of people will cover the ground – watching and sunbathing at the same time. Kids might be running around, playing with their friends.
Now imagine the sounds: the clunk of ball against willow, the clapping from the crowd, the occasional deep breath in apprehension, maybe the noise from the children playing and the odd bird call. If you are really excluded, there won’t even be traffic. This is about as close as sport gets to sitting in a library.
If you had limited words to describe it, they would almost certainly contain peaceful or tranquil.
Return to your painting. If it’s good, then the serenity of the scene will have been conveyed. All that’s left to add is the players. Scatter a few of the fielders out; integrate the umpires, paint two people with bats out in the middle, a wicket keeper and a bowler. That’s all you need. But, how would you draw them?
Would the batter be taking guard, receiving a handshake from their partner, or ducking from a bouncer?
Or, would you paint them about to punch the opposing bowler?
A punch up at a cricket match? Surely not! It’s not something easy to imagine outside of the razzmatazz and drama of the IPL, certainly not in a sleepy village in the heart of rural England. Nevertheless, Fraser Stewart of the MCC tells me: “Violence is worse at amateur level.”
Fraser is the Laws Manager at the MCC, a role that means he is permanently checking the fairness of the laws, and adjusting any when necessary. In terms of how the game is played, few people have more power.
He explains that the MCC is in the middle of a thorough review of how the game is played. And, as part of this review, a scheme has been announced that aims to curb an increasing amount of unsavoury incidents on the park.
Cards are used in other sports, most famously football and rugby. In rugby, a yellow card results in a sin-bin, while a red sees the player excluded from the match for good. The new scheme could see these effects brought into the game of cricket.
Fraser is keen to stress that no cards will be seen: “We don’t want the sight of umpires brandishing cards. If it ever gets to the stage where an umpire doesn’t want a player on the pitch, they will talk to the captain and request that they remove the player in question from the game.”
The form this will take is a one-year trial for the 2016 season, forced upon the MCC Universities and voluntarily for any other league below the county and minor county divisions. Fraser told me that five leagues have volunteered, those being the ECB Premier Leagues of Hertfordshire, East Anglia and Home Counties, along with the Bradford Premier League and Middlesex Development League.
He added: “A couple more have expressed interest but the details are yet to be ironed out. Cornwall and Worcestershire are doing something else, based along the same theme.”
Offences will be judged on a scale of severity, with level one being the least severe and level four the most. To complement the trial, the MCC has produced a document detailing the scheme and how it will work. The key things to note seem to be that the umpires have to be in agreement about the level of the offence, level three and four are only to be used in rare incidents and the scheme is only to be used as a deterrent.
Level one offences include swearing and excessive appealing (so watch out Stuart Broad!), and will bring with it a warning, which Fraser hopes is “extended to the whole team for the whole match”. Any repeat level one offence will immediately result in five penalty runs.
Level two will automatically bring five penalty runs. The offence? Throwing a ball at an opposing player in a dangerous manner, or severe bad language, amongst others.
As Fraser constantly acknowledges, the scheme is heavily based upon the umpire’s understanding of the terms.
It gets more confusing when you reach the higher offences. Level three is the equivalent of a rugby yellow card, resulting in a sin bin. Fraser tells me: “We’re suggesting ten overs in a timed game or a fifth of the available overs. While off the pitch, if fielding, it will be with a ten over suspension. If batting, the player can’t bat until their suspension is over and they have to wait for a wicket to fall – but they can’t come in after a player has retired hurt because this could abuse the system.” Substitute fielders will not be permitted and if suspended when nine wickets down, the innings is over.
Most level three offences are threats of violence, although a threat to an umpire will be classed as a level four. Racist or homophobic, or indeed any other offensive and degrading, language is either a level three or four, depending on the severity. A level four offence will result in the player being “sent-off” for the remainder of the match.
In other sports, retrospective bans are commonplace. I asked Fraser about this, who admitted it hadn’t been properly considered but conceded: “It’s up to the league or governing body to decide on any post match ban. We hope anything that warrants a level three or four will result in a rest for a week or two.”
It should be pointed out that this is not a universally accepted idea. Despite the MCC’s assurances that, during the review of the game, “the majority of umpires felt they would be better able to control player behaviour if they had more power to deal with the problem during the game”, there are those who feel it’s an unnecessary move.
To gauge how people feel about the idea, I went to village cricket matches and asked fans for their opinions. Some were willing to trial it, but a lot who were against it kept coming back to the “it’s not cricket” or “if it isn’t broke, then why are people trying to fix it?” lines. The rise in violence in village matches, five matches were cancelled last year because of it, is doing little to convince fans of the need for suspensions.
One thing that I was sceptical about when I first found out was the seemingly low number of leagues taking part. Are five leagues across the whole country enough samples to get meaningful results from? I asked Fraser Stewart exactly this, who responded, unconvincingly: “Leagues that aren’t doing it will provide a violence suspension log. The more deterrents, the more hope we have that it won’t happen.” These are retrospective bans, and will not influence real time decisions.
Sledging is a popular and current topic of discussion within cricketing circles. There is a view that it is starting to go too far, with personal insults and unnecessary jibes seemingly becoming more prevalent. A lot of people have called for it to be banned completely whilst a lot more want to see it contained but remain. There is a possibility that, especially with all levels of offences referring vaguely to it, this trial could spell the end of sledging between players in village cricket.
However, Fraser was particularly keen to stress to me that this was about as far from the truth as you could get. “We don’t want it to take the enjoyment away,” he reassured me. “The umpires have to use common sense to distinguish between friendly banter and that which crosses the line. This is only to be used as a deterrent.”
One conversation with Fraser and it’s clear that he’s passionate for both the game and this trial. He doesn’t want to remove the elements that make the sport exciting or enthralling, only adjust things to make it as enjoyable as possible to play.
Which leads us nicely onto the future of the project. If Fraser’s exuberance for the idea is replicated by those trialling it, then it might just work. After this season is over, the MCC will collect feedback from everyone involved, and, “take a view if this is something that needs to come into the laws of cricket”.
The biggest questions facing the trial all revolve around the success of it. Will this curb violence? Will it promote good behaviour or simply highlight the negatives? It’s not as simple to say it’s a success if violence in those leagues is down on years previous; you have to look deeper than that. As one fan told me, “deterrents are crucial, but no sport should be run by fear”. While I don’t necessarily think this is ruling by fear, I see the point that this won’t be successful if players are too afraid to open their mouth or react negatively.
The lawmakers have set this trial in motion, however it’s the players and umpires who will determine its future. This is a trial that has the potential to change the way we watch and play cricket, so it’s one worth keeping an eye on as you travel around village matches. If you do, watch out for the umpires alerting scorers to any punishment, but you’ll have to look hard as Fraser is keen to “let the game flow”.
Ultimately, Fraser and anyone else in offices in Lords will not decide whether this is a success or not, instead that will be left to the players in Norwich and Bradford, umpires in Cornwall and Worcester, and university students up and down the country. It’s led to a situation where the power to change cricket is in the hands of those at the lowest of the structure.
A boxing bout is violent, it’s fast and it’s brutal. The atmosphere is tense, almost unbearable at times. This image is the exact opposite of the one we have of cricket. But sport brings with it emotions that are hard to control, and so the dangers are ever-present.
Cricket is a sport that is very conscious of its image. It doesn’t want to appear too brash, too inconvenient or even too modern in the eyes of those who watch and play it. It frowns upon any breaches of laws, and is constantly updating them to find the perfect balance between the way the game is played and the way people feel it should be played. This trial is designed to maintain the current sleepy image of Saturday and Sunday afternoon cricket, and protect it from the rowdy football crowds.
Whether these behaviour trials are a success or not is almost irrelevant. The MCC want to maintain the status quo and this is definitely the first step towards securing a future where those fighting figures we drew earlier are painted over.